In the words of Joyce Carol Oates, reading literature is "the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul." Or, a little more prosaically, in the words of Ofqual, students studying A-level English literature should understand "the significance and influence of the contexts" in which texts were written and offer their own "informed, personal responses" to them. Ofqual does not specify as to whether these texts need to have been originally written in English, yet texts in translation rarely feature in the exam boards’ English literature specifications.
There are some exceptions. Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is an examination text for AQA literature B and OCR, while Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is a set text for AQA literature A. For both of the AQA specifications, students may choose to write their non-examined assessment on translated literary texts as long as their chosen text is a "high quality translation which supports the original author’s writing appropriately’" However, OCR and Edexcel expressly forbid students from focusing on literature in translation in their NEA.
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It is clear to see the value of studying seminal works by Ibsen or Remarque alongside those of authors writing in English. Not only have these books been "influential and significant in the development of English literature" according to AQA but they also provide different perspectives on the topics prescribed. For example, reflecting on the presentation of the First World War and its aftermath in a novel written by a German veteran alongside others written from a British point of view could encourage a sense of empathy for all those involved in that political conflict. Arguably, other thematic modules could equally benefit from the inclusion of texts in translation. For example, OCR’s women in literature module presents the students with texts solely focusing on the lives of English or American women. The addition of texts such as the Man International Booker Prize winner Celestial Bodies, by Jokha al-Harthi, set in Oman, would expand students’ understanding of women’s lives in other cultures.
The NEA could be the perfect opportunity for students to explore literature from around the world. All the exam boards emphasise that this is a project that should encourage independence and the comparison of texts from different contexts. Comparing texts which are not only from different historical periods, but also different countries would add a new dimension to the evaluation of how a literary work is shaped by its context. It seems inconsistent that some exam boards allow students to write about texts in translation such as A Doll’s House in the examination yet prevent students from choosing a text in translation for their independent investigation project.
One argument some may have against studying literature in translation is that the translated text is a hybrid, that the original work has been reshaped by the translator’s stylistic choices. The problem with this argument is that it buys into the myth that a text is the creation of one literary genius - the author. However, even texts originally written in English are the product of a collaboration between a writer and an editor. Ezra Pound’s revisions and suggestions played a major role in shaping TS Eliot’s The Waste Land and Dickens’ Great Expectations owes its semi-optimistic ending to Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Just like any other text, a well crafted translation will give students plenty of opportunities to demonstrate that they can engage with "the ways in which meanings are shaped", as the assessment criteria requires. Students can discuss the use of settings, narration or structure in any given text, regardless of whether it was originally written in English.
Lost in translation
While some may worry about what is "lost in translation" when studying world literature, I think it’s essential to consider what might be gained. As the number of students studying foreign languages is declining, very few young people will be equipped to read these books in the original. According to the Department for Education, "mutual respect and tolerance" of other cultures are fundamental British values and the ability to forge connections with those from other countries seems particularly important now, as the UK redefines its position in Europe. Many students sitting in English literature classes will be immigrants or part of a peer group that includes foreign nationals. It is important for them to listen to each other’s stories. What better way can there be to encourage tolerance and respect in our students than allowing them "to slip into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul" by reading literature in translation?
Gabi Reigh is a senior curriculum manager for English at a sixth-form college. She also works as a literary translator.